You may have been aware that Intellectual Property (IP) has become a significant issue in trade discussions between nations. But how vital is copyright, and the resultant actions in reality? Well, according to Real Business, the amount of investment in protecting the IP of businesses has increased from £23.8bn to £63.5bn. Companies are seeking the means of safeguarding designs, slogans, logos, images, video and more. With small business start-ups surging, there is significant effort put into protecting the ideas from copy or adaptation.

The copyright laws in place to protect IP can result in a costly impact on the finances and reputation of a business. It is essential for small businesses looking to grow to be aware of such legal compliance issues if they wish to protect their company. Each day a small business might be posting images, text and video on their website, on social media and other online material. Without a thought to the issue of IP and copyright, you could be in significant danger of legal challenge.

What is copyright?

Copyright is automatically given to the person who creates an asset. It is a means of protecting original creative expression from reproduction or obvious derivation. The creative asset becomes the intellectual property of the creator. Therefore, if you take this work and publish it as your own, you are essentially stealing from the other person.

Unlike trademarks, patents and design rights, copyright is an automatic international right. It is applied to work the moment it is created and is owned by the creator. It may be that the person holding the intellectual property may also register this under one of the other protection laws. This allows the business to prove ownership in moments of dispute.

For companies who are investing tens of thousands in the production of material, the copyright laws protect this investment. Companies enforce the rights given to them as owners of intellectual property in the same way that a shop would prosecute a thief. The reason people take the graphic, photography, copy, or video is that it takes a lot of money to produce professionally. The time, effort and skill of the creator is represented in this item and to use it is to circumvent their services. You pay no money, but you get the benefit from the work.

For that skilled individual, the copyright laws protect not only financial gains but also the reputation they enjoy. If a journalist was to have the work, they produce out of context; it could be damaging to the values they hold as important.

The potential consequences of copyright infringement

There are significant consequences for all parties when intellectual property is taken and reused or adapted. For the small business which inadvertently breaches copyright, you could:

  • Face legal action that results in substantial fines, legal costs and the demand that you retract the material that has been taken. Even if the content is within a more significant piece of work, the whole piece would likely have to be withdrawn until the copied item is removed.
  • Suffer reputational damage. When you are a small business, it is essential to project the qualities of trustworthiness and ethical. If you are deemed to be someone who would steal the ideas from another, it is difficult to suggest you wouldn’t be underhand in other ways.

For the small business who is creating assets covered by copyright, the consequences could include:

  • Loss of revenue, as the license fee is not paid, or their services are not employed to create the item for this new client.
  • Potential damage to company reputation, primarily if the asset is used in a way that is counter to the values and vision of the business.

Practical solutions for small businesses

You have a lot going on. You may be working hard to gain traction in your marketplace, and the legal issue of copyright may be too challenging to face. There is a chance that you have decided that the internet is a big place and the chances of being caught are slim. Small businesses may not have the resources to challenge your use of the material, and more prominent companies have more important things to consider. However, as the figures from Real Business show, this complacency may be misplaced. Global companies are especially sensitive to the protection of IP. Smaller companies have no choice but to protect the limited assets they own.

Therefore, the straightforward solution is to purchase the license or gain permission to use the content. Alternatively, you could engage the services of a creative professional to produce material for which you would own the copyright. If you hire a professional, it will be incumbent on them to ensure the work produced is original.

Alternatively, you can search for creative commons sites on the internet. These sites offer all sorts of content that is free to use. There will be parts of the site that are clearly marked as free to use for commercial use. If you want to adapt or change the content, you also need to make sure the site offers permission for this. You can also find such material with advanced searches on Google. The search engine allows you to filter results based on the level of licenses offered.

If you are a small business with limited resources for upholding copyright, you may wish to apply for enhanced protection. Registering your creative assets with design rights, trademarks or patents allows you to express your intellectual property officially. This makes proof of ownership straightforward when abused.

The essential takeaway

No matter how convenient it feels to copy and paste from the internet, almost everything online is copyright protected. Ignorance is not a defence and nor is the claim that the person didn’t use the copyright symbol. The protection of the intellectual property is internationally automatic. It is best to be original in your design. Screenshots, lengthy unattributed copied text and clips from videos are all likely to end with you in legal and financial difficulty.

Colin Bates is the Director of Mackenzie and Dorman, a leading solicitors based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. @MackenzieDorman

Copyright stock photo by Olivier Le Moal/Shutterstock